Let’s begin with “filed teeth” – the better to eat people with. Let’s also note lines like “he saw that these (Black Africans) were more wicked than apes.”

It was the fall of 1998, the year I began my career as an English teacher at a high school in Maine. On my desk was a book first published in 1912, called “Tarzan of the Apes,” by Edgar Rice Burroughs. It was a book that was in the curriculum, and, by the aged look of the stack of copies on my shelves, it had been taught to generations of white Maine students.

I don’t know how other teachers before me had taught “Tarzan.” Maybe they had simply assessed students with true-or-false questions about the plot. Care to try?

True or false: Before they kill their captive and then eat him, the circle of Black cannibals “lick their hideous lips” and “dance in wild and savage abandon to the maddening music of the drums.”

Answer: True.

I want you to know I didn’t teach “Tarzan” that way. Instead, we read the book and talked about stereotypes and Burroughs’ use of white and black symbolism.


Answer: White – Good, brave and godlike. Black – Evil and savage. Often eaten by crocodiles and lions.

It is 2021, and some politicians and parents are lashing out against critical race theory being taught in schools. Though the term is new to me, I think I was applying it back in 1998 when I was critical of Burroughs’ racist characterization of Africans. I was absolutely, not theoretically, certain about this.

It is 2021, and I am teaching my ninth-graders “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas. All of my students love the novel because it is about being a teenager and dealing with strict parents, high school, texting, dating, grief and, yes, systemic racism in the justice system, an idea they had already encountered when Tom Robinson was found guilty of rape by an all-white jury in “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Not once have I told white students to feel bad about being white.

It is 2021, and we have read the first chapter of “When the Emperor Was Divine,” Julie Otsuka’s novel about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. A student raises her hand.

“I can’t believe I’m 14 years old and was never taught this. Why?”

Why? Good question – and here is a teaching tip for you. You don’t answer such hard question; instead, you turn the question back to the student to answer.


And her answer wasn’t about making people feel guilty for being white. Her answer was that some folks would rather treat stories from U.S. history and American literature like shameful family secrets to be covered up. And then she spoke about “healing” and “learning from the past so mistakes like this won’t happen again” and how “you can still love America and know some hard truths.”

Here is a hard truth. Education is a road trip to self-discovery. Students grow as learners and thinkers when they not only see themselves accurately represented in the history and literature they read but also hear from voices whose backgrounds and experiences are different from their own. Such as when the Younger family in “A Raisin in the Sun” encounters white resistance when they plan to move to an all-white neighborhood.

So the next time you hear someone lament that schools are actively teaching critical race theory, please tell them that we’re not. What we are doing is removing dehumanizing texts and replacing them with texts whose characters offer insight into our shared humanity and American story.

But don’t take my word for it. Read “Tarzan of the Apes” and then ask yourself if you’d want this book taught to high school students in 2021. If not, then maybe you have a future as an advocate for equity and inclusion in Maine public schools. Welcome to the club.

Comments are not available on this story.